When Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in the New World on September 8, 1565, he was accompanied by 800 colonists who were eager to start a new life, in a new land, in a city they called San Agustin.
Four hundred and fifty years later, that permanent European colonization makes the city of St. Augustine the oldest city in the United States by quite a few years. Despite the emphasis in history books on Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, St. Augustine is 42 years older than Jamestown, founded in 1607, and had been in existence for 55 years by the time the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.
The Nation’s Oldest City plans to celebrate its 450th anniversary in September with a multitude of “Celebrate 450!” festivities, including a two-day Music Festival; Spanish Music and Dance Performance; Fireworks; a Menendez Landing Re-Enactment; Spanish Wine Festival, to which the King and Queen of Spain have been invited, and a U.S. Spain Council International Summit.
But that’s not all.
The city is celebrating its milestone birthday throughout the year with many other events and special exhibitions, including one that began November 15 and will run through January 12: The First City through the Eyes of Masters, an exhibit at the Visitor Information Center featuring St. Augustine-themed works by Florida painters in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The city will not just commemorate its Menendez founding, but its entire 450 years of history since then. It’s a fascinating multifaceted, multicultural story that begins with the first settlers: Spanish colonists and the free and enslaved African Americans who accompanied them, along with the Timucuan Indians, who greeted them when they stepped off their ships, and invited them to stay for a while as guests in their village.
When Menendez arrived, he was not leading a military expedition, says Dana Ste. Claire, Director of the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration. “It was a full scale attempt to colonize for Spain. What we are recognizing is the oldest American colony, and the genesis of American culture, with Spanish and African cultures mingled with Native American cultures.”
The city’s goal is to educate the nation that St. Augustine is America’s first city, “to get the history books rewritten,” says Andy Witt, executive director of the St. Johns County Cultural Council.
“To tell the story that America began here.”
The city actually started telling the story several years ago by commemorating significant anniversaries back-to-back as a four-year linear event.
It began in 2012 with the bicentennial anniversary of the Spanish Constitution. St. Augustine holds the world’s only surviving Spanish Constitution monument, from 1812, which still stands tall in the city’s downtown plaza.
In 2013, the city and state marked the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. Many historians believe he first came ashore in what is today the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, north of St. Augustine.
2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. St. Augustine played an important role in the passage of that act, and key sites where events took place still stand.
The St. Augustine 450th Commemoration plan was initially developed in 2009, when the city created a special department to implement it. Since the city’s historic milestone is nationally significant, it was created in conjunction with organizers of the Jamestown 400th commemoration (in 2007), as well as the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s office and a 14-member Federal Commission.
The commemoration features community celebrations; public education and interpretive programs; ceremonial events; economic development and official events.
Major events slated to take place in 2015 include:
THE FIRST CITY THROUGH THE EYES OF MASTERS EXHIBITION
Nov. 15, 2014 to Jan. 12, 2015
This kick-off program at the Visitor Information Center features 45 original paintings and works of art from the 1800s and early 1900s that capture early St. Augustine and many of its historic sites. Displayed in a then-and-now format, with photographs from the present juxtaposed with images from the past, the exhibit aims to show the continuity of the city’s culture, that things that were important to people in the past are still important today.
NOCHE DE GALA
A special evening celebrating the 496th birthday of Don Pedro Menendez, St. Augustine’s founder, featuring dinner and dancing in The Lightner Museum Ballroom.
TAPESTRY: THE CULTURAL THREADS OF FIRST AMERICA
April 4 to October 4
Exhibition at the Visitor Information Center that will tell the story of how three intertwining cultures of Hispanics, Africans and Native Americans came together to form the foundation of American culture and the blended society of St. Augustine and the United States.
April to September
Living history specialists, historic craftsmen, actors, orators and musicians will bring St. Augustine’s past to life through weekly presentations on city stages.
CELEBRATE 450! MUSIC FESTIVAL
September 4 & 5
Two-day free music festival at Francis Field and sound stages around the city, featuring national and local artists.
EMMA CONCERT ASSOCIATION SPANISH MUSIC AND DANCE PERFORMANCE
Performance that will showcase St. Augustine’s Spanish heritage, held at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
CELEBRATE 450! FIREWORKS
Fireworks over the Matanzas River, free to the public.
CELEBRATE 450! REENACTMENT OF THE LANDING OF DON PEDRO MENENDEZ
September 8 at 9:00 a.m.
Menendez and colonists will bring
to life the story of the city’s founding at Mission Nombre de Dios, free to the public.
CELEBRATE 450! COMMEMORATIVE PROCESSION
September 8 at 10:00 a.m.
Procession down San Marco Avenue and St. George Street will include members of many cultures, historic re-enactors, Catholic Bishops from around the U.S., and international, national, state and local dignitaries. They will proceed from the Mission Nombre de Dios to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine for a Commemorative Mass, to be followed by a street festival.
CELEBRATE 450! SPANISH WINE FESTIVAL
September 9 to 12
Annual wine festival will include a kick-off luncheon, Vino Veritas, Cava Reception and Dinner, and a Grand Tasting and Batalla.
U.S. SPAIN COUNCIL INTERNATIONAL SUMMIT
September 9 to 11
About 200 world leaders will meet in St. Augustine to discuss international economic development.
HISTORIC SHIPS AT THE ST. AUGUSTINE BAYFRONT
Historic ships, including El Galeón (pictured top right) and Nao Victoria will be available for tours.
For more information, visit www.staugustine-450.com.